My friend the imam was discouraged. We were sitting in his office next to the prayer hall. There was a weariness about him. True, this was just after the month of Ramadan and his whole sleep pattern had been disrupted, not only by the change in eating times but also leading extra prayer times at night in the mosque. But that wasn’t it. “Some people,” he said, “Some of our people are so extreme. They refuse to be flexible.”
Just over the road from his mosque, a new mosque had opened in what had been a commercial building. It was run by a group which follows a different brand of Islam to my imam friend. “You know, the holy month of Ramadan starts and finishes with the new moon. We say it starts at the time of the birth of the new moon whether it is seen or not. They say it must be seen or there is no new moon. It confuses people. We should be flexible and work together to make harmony, but no, these inflexible people they love to pass judgement if we do not follow their way. We are willing to discuss and find a way, but they just want to be right and despise everyone else. It is so discouraging.”
How does a Christian respond to such a disclosure? Probably the most natural response from a British Christian would be something like “I know what you mean! You would not believe the arguments there used to be over the date of Easter! And even now it keeps shifting about.” Or “Yes, we have some very unreasonable people too!” Let’s pause at this point. Why do we tend to respond that way?
I think it is part of our approach to politeness to try and find some middle ground to meet on. We seek to express sympathy and demonstrate that we face similar things. We try and build the relationship on the space between us, as it were. However, I have noticed that when the roles are reversed my friends of Asian heritage do not respond the same way. If I express some dissatisfaction with some Christians, they very rarely respond by expressing dissatisfaction about fellow Muslims. They don’t try to find some kind of middle ground in which to share a grievance.
So I listened carefully and asked him to explain it to me. When I commented that it was more about the foolishness and stubbornness of human hearts, the way pride gets in even when people say they are worshipping God. What we need is grace and mercy. The conversation moved on and he told me the problem they had with people making donations and wanting their generosity published. He said that it seemed to be particularly a problem here, and that he had not encountered it in other parts of the UK. I told him what Jesus had said about that in Matthew 6:3 and explained about Jesus saying that those who gave to be seen by others got no reward except the approval of people, but when we give in such a way that God alone knows then he rewards us. He nodded.
Eventually the conversation moved on and he asked about whether it was true as some people said that the Bible had been changed. I gave him an answer along the lines that it had not been changed, that as it happens, the Qur’an affirms the Bible and that the Islamic scholars who said otherwise were following a teaching that developed four hundred years after the rise of Islam. He seemed happy with this.
We talked about our families, asylum seekers and various other things, but it was coming round to the next prayer time. The prayer hall was filling up. I got ready to leave. He thanked me for coming and said how much he enjoyed talking to me. He was looking a bit brighter by this point.